10.23.18: a rebel alliance of quality content
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the debut author's planifesto
sanity and sense for your first book and you
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)

The Kitchen Daughter officially went on sale just about three weeks ago, and to be completely honest, I'm still going a little bit crazy over it. When something that you've been waiting for and working toward for so long finally happens, I think "crazy" is par for the course. But there are so many different ways to be crazy. Only some of them are useful.

Today, let's talk about the useful ones.

Either I'm a columnist because I love to organize things into principles, or I like to organize things into principles because I'm a columnist, but either way, I'm generally not content to just do things. I'm compelled to make lists and rules and guidelines, both before and after I take action.

At the same time, I'm extremely uncomfortable with "always" and "never" language -- in my own life, but even more so when I'm suggesting guidelines to other people. So I couldn't come up with a manifesto on how to behave as a debut author. But, I decided, I could come up with a planifesto -- what I believe are the right things to do, the things I tried to do, as my launch date approached and now that it's in the rear-view mirror. A list of the things I planned to do and that I plan to keep doing as my book makes its way into the world.

So here it is! A Debut Author’s Five-Point Planifesto:

1. Deserve has nothing to do with anything, except thanks. When I get a great review, I’m elated, but if you start thinking you deserve the good ones, what does that say about the bad ones? Reviewers aren’t grading on effort. That’s not what reviews are about. It’s about the book making its way into the hands of a reader, and that reader forming an unbiased opinion of that book. It might have taken 10 years to write, or 10 months, or 10 days; it doesn’t matter. The same applies to sales figures or book tours or Facebook ads or attention of any sort. Don’t get wrapped up in deserving.

(And what’s that “except thanks” about? Thank the people who do nice things for you, whether or not they’re doing it as part of their job. Thank your agent and your editor and your publicist and the readers who send you e-mails asking for reading guide questions for their book club. They do deserve that.)

2. Nothing’s more important than nice. There is one thing that’s completely within your control at all times during the wild whirlwind process of getting published, and that’s your attitude. You may decide to connect with people on social media or not; you may decide to go visiting readers in person or not. Regardless of how you’re interacting with people, and whether those people are librarians or radio hosts or your cousins or Katie Couric – always, always be nice. Don’t get caught up in negativity. Be yourself, but be the most positive, pleasant version of yourself that you can. That doesn’t mean you can’t ask for things, and it doesn’t mean you should simply sit and watch the world go by, but it does mean that people will remember a snide remark or a litany of complaints. Plus, anything on the internet is forever. You don’t want a bad day sitting out there for years.

3. Relax, but don’t rest. Don’t beat yourself up for missed opportunities. You’ll never be able to do all the things you could do for your book. Don’t freak out about that. But do push yourself to work a little harder, do a little more. Write an extra thank-you note. Send one more e-mail. Make one more connection. It’s impossible to know exactly what will or won’t pay off, so don’t lose sleep wondering if you didn’t do The Thing You Should Have. Instead, be planning for The Thing You’ll Do Next.

4. Ask twice. As I said above, being nice doesn’t mean that you should passively accept anything and everything that comes . It’s often said that no one will love your book quite as much as you, and I think that’s generally true. I will say that no one else can pay attention to your book quite as closely as you can. So if you want something or you need something, if you only ask once for it, it can get lost in the shuffle. Wait for a bit and politely ask again. Smart follow-up is one of the secret weapons of our age. Don’t neglect it.

5. Above all, a day is just a day. I’ve only melted down once in the past month. It was a few days after the book came out, at the end of a long day, and I decided to check my Amazon rank one last time before going to bed. (Numbers like this are meaningless; they are also incredibly hard to resist.) It had plummeted, and I just lost it, thinking, Well, that’s it. It’s over. But the good news and the bad news are the same news: it’s never over. Publishing is famously resistant to patterns, and you’ll never see a pattern coming, so don’t think a good day means permanent smooth sailing, and don’t think a bad day means a future full of failure. It really is a rollercoaster, and there’s always the potential for another dip down on the track ahead, and just as much potential for a high climb.


Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

more about jael mchenry


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mike julianelle
5.4.11 @ 8:52a

Wait, is this a planifesto for debut authors or for everyone everywhere at all times? Because it works for both.

roger striffler
5.11.11 @ 2:01p

Excellent column, and I do have to agree with Mike. Funny how looking at a specific course of events can lead you to beautifully general truths.

roger striffler
5.11.11 @ 2:01p

And I can't believe I just agreed with Mike. Publicly.

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